(2/10) A scientist performs illegal experiments on murderers aboard a ship, hoping to turn evil people good with the help of invasive hormone therapy. Vaguely suggested by a Jack London story, this 1939 cheapo from PRC fails to do anything interesting with its lurid premise, despite a good cast and White Zombie’s director at the helm.
Torture Ship. 1939. USA. Directed by Victor Halperin. Written by Harvey Huntley, George Wallace Sayre. Suggested by story by Jack London. Starring: Lyle Talbot, Irving Pichel, Julie Bishop, Sheila Bromley, Russell Hopton, Eddie Holden, Wheeler Oakman, Skelton Knaggs. Produced by Sigmund Neufeld & Ben Judell. IMDb: 3.3/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
This is one of the the first “glandular” horror/SF film ever made*, a subgenre that completely exploded in the forties. Extracts from or manipulation of the endocrine glands, in particular the adrenal gland and the pituitary gland, became the means of controlling the human — and animal — body. By pushing the gland button apes could be turned into humans and vice versa, all sorts of deadly diseases could be cured, the endocrine hormones held the key to everything from eternal youth to invisibility to superstrength and naturally the resurrection of the dead. Inevitably, though, there were side-effects administered by God, proving that there are some things that Man is not supposed to meddle in.
That the first glandular film came in 1939 is probably no coincidence, as that was the year after American endocrinologist Louis Berman had published his magnum opus New Creations in Human Beings. As Christer Nordlund, Professor of the history of science and ideas at Umeå University in Sweden, writes in a research paper: “Berman thought not only that it was perfectly possible to understand human nature through hormone analysis but that endocrinologists would be able to control, design and ‘improve’ humans by using hormone replacement therapy. Furthermore, in contrast to most of the eugenics of his time, Berman suggested that the whole population of the world should be improved. As a political activist he wanted to contribute to the development of new human beings, ‘ideal normal persons’, thereby reaching an ‘ideal society’.”
So while some of the ideas put forth in pulp fiction at the time were a bit wacky, the notion that the understanding of the endocrine system could unlock almost limitless potential for the human race was one that was being discussed by serious scientists at the time, no doubt further enhanced by sensationalist media. And this is where our film begins.
Please note that the version of Torture Ship that is readily available on some DVD and Blu-ray releases, as well as on the web, is a truncated version. The movie was (is) originally around 60 minutes long, but the generally available film is around 50 minutes. At some point someone (perhaps for a TV edit) has cut out the entire first ten minutes of the film between opening credits and a scene where a group of people are discussing taking over a ship. We’re not told who they are, why they are apparently held confined on a ship and why they want to take it over from what appears to be a group of doctors. This is actually a rather effective beginning, as it puts you right into the action and keeps the mystery going for quite some time, as it isn’t definitely revealed what the doctors are doing until the very end of the movie. However, it is completely unintentional, as the longer version of the film (which is available, you just have to search a bit) explains everything in the very beginning. And this is it:
Dr. Stander (Irving Pichel) is an endocrinologist who is trying to find a way to manipulate the endocrine glands in order to root out the criminal tendencies in — well, criminals. But the authorities don’t take too kindly to his human experiments, and threaten to throw him in jail. Thus, along with his assistants, his nephew, who is the captain of a ship, and a few strongmen, he kidnaps a bunch of murderers and locks them on a ship, where he continues his experiments on the not very cooperative guinea pigs. The reason they are on a ship, thus, is that both the good doctor himself and the criminals are wanted by the authorities. And this is where the truncated film starts.
The plot, as such, is minimal. The twist in the tale is that Dr. Stander fails in all his experiments, and realises that he must first test his work on a “control group”, in other words: “a good man”. This good man is none other than his own nephew Lt. Bob (Lyle Talbot), who is conveniently knocked out in a fisticuff with one of the criminals. So Dr. Stander manipulates his glands without his knowledge or consent, effectively turning him into a “criminal”, so he can then reverse the process. Lt. Bob does not take kindly to this sort of manipulation, and as he gains some understanding about what his fellow shipmates are going through, he launches a mutiny against the scientists controlling the ship (how a captain leads a mutiny on his own ship is an interesting question, though). The third main character is Lt. Bob’s love interest Joan (Julie Bishop), who naturally wrongly convicted. Her role in the film is to be the love interest.
The lurid title and the notion of a mad scientist performing secret experiments on criminals on a ship conjures up a whole number of expectations for the movie. Those expectations can immediately be dropped. If you want that film, I suggest that you check out the fantastic pre-Code masterpiece Island of Lost Souls (1932, review). As Robert Ring writes on Classic-Horror.com: “Every avenue that was opened for exploration is quickly abandoned in favor of soap opera, mostly consisting of boring and often stupid scuffles and arguments between criminals and crew for control of the ship. We see very little experimentation and consequence. In fact, the experiments function almost exclusively as a way to create tangential conflicts, which become the focus of the film.”
Torture Ship was made by Sigmund Neufeld’s outfit Producers’ Pictures, which in 1940 would become Producers’ Releasing Corporation, or PRC, the notorious manufacturer of cheap Z-movies. As director Neufeld hired Victor Halperin, who made a splash in 1932 with his Poverty Row surprise hit White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi in one of his best outings. A creaky, but atmospheric movie, White Zombie momentarily thrust Halperin into the limelight, but he and his producer brother Edward failed to recreate the success of the movie, and by 1939 he had been back on Poverty Row for a number of years.
It’s clear that Neufeld and co-producer Ben Judell were hoping Torture Ship would be another White Zombie. With Halperin on board, the studio hired noted character actor and director Irving Pichel as the mad scientist as well as Lyle Talbot who was a seasoned stage actor, and as Horror Incorporated puts it: “the closest thing PRC had to a real leading-man type”. To enhance the credibility of the project, and perhaps to calm jittery censors, Neufeld & Co splashed the name Jack London in loud letters all over their marketing material.
The opening credits state that the film is “suggested” by the short story A Thousand Deaths by Jack London, and that is almost an overstatement. A Thousand Deaths was written in 1899 and is notable for being the first story London ever got published. However, there are no criminals in the story, neither are there any endocrine glands or a love story. A Thousand Deaths is a claustrophobic horror story told from the perspective of a young man who’s estranged father is keeping against his will as a guinea pig on a ship to experiment with ways of bringing dead people back to life. The story describes the narrator being killed and consequently reanimated using dozens of different techniques, until he finally figures out a way to turn the father’s methods against him, making the mad scientist disappear in a poof of scattered atoms.
The actual story of the film was written by hack writer George Wallace Sayre, known for penning a couple of dozen Z movies in the thirties and forties, including another 1939 mad scientist film, The Man They Could Not Hang (review) starring Boris Karloff. Co-writer on Torture Ship was Harvey Huntley, who holds no other movie credits on IMDb. The most impressive aspect of the script is how Sayre and Huntley manage to do absolutely nothing with the basic premise of the film. Instead of anything resembling torture or even experiments, most of the running time is taken up by soap opera drama between Bobby, Joan and Poison Mary (Sheila Bromley), the murderer that Joan has allegedly been assisting, and by the crew of the ship chasing escaped criminals. The screenwriters seem more interested in developing a crime drama around clearing Joan’s name than in doing anything remotely associated with the title. No torture seems to be going on anywhere on the ship, even if the experiments are sometimes unfortunately fatal. There’s a number of confusing subplots involving some of the criminals, portrayed by quality character actors like Wheeler Oakman, Russell Hopton and Skelton Knaggs, and even if they elicit a couple of chuckles, these merely serve as padding for the already short running time.
The sets don’t ever give you the feeling of being on a ship, these are the same nondescript rooms with ordinary nondescript furniture you see in most Z movies. There is something that looks like the aft of a ship, which is shot against a rear projection of the sea, but always from the exact same camera angle and never very convincingly. The direction isn’t terrible — Halperin knew his stuff — but it’s completely uninspired and it feels mostly as if he simply left it to DP Jack Greenhalgh to set up the lights and roll camera.
It’s not the worst thing PRC ever churned out, but compared to, for example the Bela Lugosi vehicle The Devil Bat (1940, review), this film has the drawback of being an utter bore. Horror Incorporated writes: “Torture Ship is a pretty standard Mad Scientist picture. The only things that set it apart is the fact that it’s set at sea, and that it sports an interesting cast for the time.”. J. Luis Rivera at W-Cinema gives the movie 3/10 stars, and partly forgives it because of its obviously low budget. But, writes he: “Torture Ship doesn’t have low budget as its worst enemy, the real problems are an awful screenplay and an uninspired vision. […] Torture Ship fails at exploiting its premise, and instead delivers a pretty forgettable tale of mad science that fails at being thrilling. It’s just simply not interesting.”. Mark David Welsh also notes that PRC did worse than this in the future, but “it’s interesting to see that the studio’s flaws were there right from the start; rushed productions, no budgets and a sorry lack of creativity”. Bruce Eder at AllMovie gives Torture Ship 1,5/5 stars, calling it “a strange and diverting (if not exactly ‘entertaining’) thriller for old movie buffs”.
I’d like to tell you that Torture Ship has some redeeming qualities but it really doesn’t. The direction is lazy but not nonexistent. The sets are bad but not terrible. The budget is low but not completely-devoid-of-money low. It’s not remotely the worst film ever made, but it has the irredeemable fault of being hopelessly boring.
*As Ryan points out in the comment below, a very early example of “glandular horror” was the 1922 Lon Chaney vehicle Blind Bargain.
Torture Ship. 1939. USA. Directed by Victor Haplerin. Written by Harvey Huntley, George Wallace Sayre. Suggested by short story A Thousand Deaths by Jack London. Starring: Lyle Talbot, Irving Pichel, Julie Bishop, Sheila Bromley, Anthony Averill, Russell Hopton, Julian Madison, Eddie Holden, Wheeler Oakman, Stanley Blystone, Leander de Cordova, Demetrius Alexis, Skelton Knaggs. Cinematography: Jack Greenhalgh. Editing: Holbrook N. Todd. Art direction: Fred Preble. Sound engineer: Hans Weeren. Produced by Sigmund Neufeld & Ben Judell for Producers’ Pictures.